Archive for September, 2006

Not really hiding in plain sight

September 20th, 2006

I have nothing in general against traffic cops. Usually they do an important job. I have a friend who volunteers in the traffic police. And I had a few opportunities to talk to traffic cops, both on and off duty, who were fine people.

But sometimes…

Last night, driving back home, I saw a traffic police car near the lanes on the other direction. It was on a highway, with two lanes going in each direction, separated by a short fence.

The car was positioned in a way that made it look like an ambush position. There was a fence (some large standing metal fence, from construction work in the area) that reached to the roof of the car, hiding it from the road. From back on the lane you couldn’t see the car, nor from the side.

I could see it clearly, because I was driving from the other direction. Can’t have that one blocked, or the car won’t be able to rush forward into the road when they’ll catch someone doing something bad (which at these hours, on that road, would be pretty limited to driving too fast in an open and clear highway, but that’s beside the point).

So far it sounds fair enough, and pretty standard. The car is hidden so people won’t slow down especially because the cops are there, and there was probably a speed meter somewhere up the road.

Except for one small detail. The fence reached, as I wrote, to the roof of the car. But the car, as police cars do, had a flashing siren installed on top of it’s roof. Flashing blue and red lights. Which was higher than the fence.

Nobody coming through that highway could have seen the car, but the lights were visible from far away. Very visible.

Which struck me as totally stupid. What’s the point of hiding if you don’t hide completely? What sort of an ambush is this? And they had to want to hide, or they could have stood in some other place not obscured by that fence. It only went for a few meters.

It’s like 4 years old kids, who think that if they can’t see you then you can’t see them. It’s not uncommon to find kindergarten kids simply covering their eyes with something, and then assuming that you can’t see them.

Maybe these specific traffic cops, or whoever put them there, were that smart.

And then I thought of another possibility. It could be on purpose, an ironic gesture that appealed to their sense of humour. I could recognize that humour, because I shared it once myself.

I was once on a trip, with a group of people, and the guide was someone who annoyed me. So when we had to clear some area, I decided to check what impression did I give the guide. How stupid did she think I personally was. So I stood behind a large lamppost, which hid my face and most of by body, but my hands were very visible from the sides. And I waited.

Soon enough I found out. She told me, explicitly, that “Just because you can’t see me, doesn’t mean I can’t see you. Don’t be silly.”

Which left me, for some reason, very amused.

So maybe this was like that, with these specific cops wondering if people will notice, and really think they’re too stupid to know.

You don’t see the humour, right? Doesn’t strike your ironic streak? Well, there’s a reason for it. A good reason. Related to some minor detailed I omitted from my story. The group were my mates in kindergarten, the guide was our kindergarten teacher, and I was about 4-5 years old, though an intelligent smartass 4-5 years old.

My sense of humour improved (OK, OK, let’s settle for changed) since. But it’s possible these specific traffic cops weren’t as stupid as a 4 years old, but rather had the sophisticated humour of an intelligent 4 years old. Could be.

Not much of an improvement, though.

Mignon Dunn – July 16 – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

September 6th, 2006

[Update: I forgot to link to the usual disclaimer, of why anyone reading this should not take it as a serious review of the singers who participate in the master-classes. I also cleared an ambiguity I had on the name of one of the sung arias, based on the comment by the singer]

The master of this day’s master class was Mignon Dunn, herself a very well known and accomplished singer.

I recall seeing that she has a master class in this opera program for years now, but don’t recall how far back. Every year it seems like she has just one master class, though. And until this year I think I never managed to see one.

The first singer was Angela Pihut (or Pihot, they spelled in different on the two master-class she was on), a Soprano from Moldova. She sang Donde lieta usci from La Bohème by Puccini.

She has a very lovely voice, nice clear high notes, and good crescendos. But she also suffers from a problem with the languages. Not only her English during the class, which was bad, but the impression is that she didn’t really understand what it is that she sang. And her diction could use some improvement as well, though that’s a part of the same problem.

Her acting during the aria was too sad. Since this aria is after Mimi (the character she’s singing) had a big fight with her boyfriend, and they broke up, being sad seems natural. But Mignon reminded her that in these circumstances people often don’t act as sad as they feel. “We all broke up with someone we love. It’s painful, and we want to make it as unpainful as possible”.

In the same vein, Angela’s tendency to look down during the aria was met with the comment “Don’t look at the floor, he is not on the floor”.

And again, something which happens to a lot of singers, she listened to herself while singing, trying to judge herself and decide if she’s good. But if a singer is too busy listening, they don’t put as much into their singing. “Don’t be your own critic. You are good”.

Another point, which Mignon raised with several of the singers, was that it is important that they’ll keep their energy while singing. Even if it’s sad, even if it’s supposed to be quiet, they should keep their energy. “Keep your energy. don’t relax for goodness sake”.

The second singer was Malena Dayen, a Mezzo-Soprano from Argentina, who sang in this master-class the aria Werther! Werther! (I think officially called Je vous écris de ma petite chambre) from Massenet’s Werther.

To clarify, unfortunately by this point I’m a little confused about what was sang originally. According to her she sang Werther! Werther!, and this is what I corrected my report here to say. I have no reason to doubt this, since I do believe she has a better reason to remember this accurately than I do, since the length of the aria does fit what happened on the stage, and since this aria does make more sense for her as a singer. In my original report here, though, I was under the impression that the aria was Vieni t’affretta from Macbeth by Verdi, which I explicitly do recall being mentioned on stage this evening. The reason for my confusion is that I’m not sure why Macbeth would have been mentioned when singing Werther, yet I really can’t figure out any other singer this evening that I may have confused it with. Possibly Mignon made some comment comparing a certain detail in this aria with the Verdi one, and this stuck in my recollection over what was actually sang.

This aria is very long. Mignon stopped Malena somewhere in the middle, and said that she won’t be singing all of it. This is also a problem with master-classes, because each of the student singers deserve their time, but there is a limit on how much they can stretch each session. So singers who choose a long piece often either have to only do half of it, or the form of the lesson is changed and they work while singing the aria the first time, instead of singing it straight first and then repeating while working with the master.

Much of what they worked with on this aria was also the issue of energy, and putting enough strength into the songs. Mignon’s phrases during this part included “Don’t relax, just don’t relax” , “It gets too sad, and sentimental, and I lose patience”, “Don’t not use energy, ever” (Yes, that’s a double negative. But no grammar aficionado from the audience complained, so I won’t either), “I know it’s piano, but don’t hold back with it”, and “For me it’s simply not enough. It’s not a matter of loud, just give a little more”.

As I said, Mignon Dunn seems to put a lot of weight on energy.

The third singer was Carlos Conde, a Baritone from Puerto Rico. He sang Hai gia vinta la causa from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart.

Mignon, and most of the audience, liked his singing. To me personally he sounded a bit flat, with little distinction between the low and high notes. A matter of taste, I guess. And the aria is supposed to be partially a recitative, so maybe it was even partially justified.

He also, apparently, lost 80 pounds during the past year. That’s some diet.

In this aria the acting should reflect the mood of Count Almaviva. On the one hand full of himself and vain, but on the other hand concerned about what others think about him, and also getting furious when he overhears Susanna and Figaro.

On the Count’s character Mignon had to say that “I think the count is really neurotic. Strong people don’t care that much what people think about them. But he does, too much”.

Mignon worked with Carlos on these acting bits, showing the different moods and personality traits that the count exhibits during the aria.

She also had a comment about the singing, which again could apply not only to this case, but in general. There is a part of this aria in which some sentences and sentiments are repeated a few times. And Carlos sang them the same. So Mignon said that “We do say things over and over and over again. But you have to get a little madder each time”. There should be some change, progress, growth. The repetitions aren’t done frozen with no changes.

The fourth singer was Laura Mohre, a Mezzo-Soprano from the US. She sang Svegliatevi nel core from Giulio Cesare by Handel.

She had a very good voice, and beautiful high notes. But she was a bit too quiet, didn’t project her voice well enough. It seems during her singing that she couldn’t take in enough air, and kept taking half-breathes instead of breathing fully.

This is a vengeance aria, starting with an appeal to the Furies to get him[1] more riled up for his revenge. So Laura had to act, and sound, madder. “Stop thinking vocal production, and just be as mad as hell”.

After some prompting from Mignon she also improved her stance, which besides making her look better also made a noticeable improvement to her voice.

Usually I don’t mention the pianists in thes master-classes, because the main point is the singers. So as long as there’s nothing out of the ordinary with the music I just don’t pay attention (This is very different on music concerts, were I tend to notice way too much). But on this particular aria the pianist, Sasha Ivanov, missed quite a few notes. I assume he didn’t get enough practice time on the piece in advance.

The fifth singer should have been Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a Tenor from Mexico. But he didn’t arrive. Instead we had Thomas Wazelle, a Tenor from the US. He sang De’ miei bollenti spiriti Libiamo ne’ lieti calici (Actually, he didn’t name the aria, and I didn’t write anything in my notes to remind me for sure. So I suppose it’s possible he sang De’ miei bollenti spiriti instead) from La Traviata by Verdi.

He had a nice voice, but he needs to work on his diction.

He also didn’t hold many of the notes long enough. But it’s not a matter of ability, since when Mignon pointed his attention to it, and told him to hold the notes, he did. And noticeably improved.

It did require him to breath a little more, but as Mignon said “Breathing is better than not breathing”. Hard to argue with that.

Another good evening on the opera program, and Mignon was certainly good enough to try and catch next year as well.

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  1. Well, the singer is a her, but Sesto, the character, is a him[back]

West End lowers standards

September 6th, 2006

West End, London, where the best musicals and theatre shows are performed. Where the best singers, dancers, and actors go on stage every evening to entertain the audience.

Tell people that you’ve seen a show in West-End, and they’ll naturally assume it was good. West End implies class. Quality. Careful consideration.

Or at least, all that was true until now. Apparently the standards are falling. And falling very very low.

Ashlee Simpson, also known as the pop singer who officially can’t sing live, has joined the cast of a West End musical.

And not a minor one, some fringe show nobody cares about. Oh, no. She’s now on the cast of Chicago. Chicago, for crying out loud.

And not as a minor character, someone on the swing team who has to stay out back. Oh, no. She’s to be the new Roxie Hart.

What were they thinking?! Were they thinking?!

Medical patients and the drug problems they don’t have

September 6th, 2006

Some people don’t understand that using drugs, not to mention very large amounts of serious drugs, can have side effects. Bad side effects, I mean, not just seeing the pretty colours.

Like the guy from this story, coming to the ER totally out and in shock. But his friend is sure it’s not related to the tons of drugs he’s on because… he does that often and usually doesn’t react badly. So sad it’s actually very funny.

I personally saw an event that went in a totally different direction, a few years ago. A patient came to an ophthalmologist, to have his eyes examined, because they were red and itching.

In the examination it looked like he had acute conjunctivitis[1]. A viral infection. And yes, it’s easy to tell the different kinds of conjunctivitis apart, usually. It’s surprising in how many obviously different ways, under magnification, the tissue can react, when all you see without magnification is red and some swelling.

The doctor gave him a prescription for steroidal drops to reduce the inflammation[2]. And also gave him the usual explanations on how to avoid infecting others in the meantime.

A real problem, and he received treatment. Nobody questioned him about what happened, or hinted in any way that his problem may be anything else than the viral infection it was.

And yet before he left the guy felt the need to explain that his eyes are red because he has a problem, not because he’s been smoking marijuana. He said that he doesn’t smoke drugs. In case it wasn’t clear enough, he further clarified that it’s not just that he doesn’t smoke, it’s that he doesn’t do drugs at all. And he repeated that therefore his eyes are not red because of drug use. Can’t be, since he isn’t smoking or using any.

He repeated that several times, stressing the point. Before he calmed down, and left, the doctor had to assure him that he believes him, and that the eyes have another legitimate reason to be red.

Of course, marijuana does other things beside making people’s eyes redder. And just because there’s something else that makes the eyes red, doesn’t mean there’s no marijuana in the body anyway. Just saying.

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  1. Inflammation of the conjunctiva, the white part of the eyes[back]
  2. Germs are easy, there are plenty of good antibiotics. Viruses are harder, usually you just reduce the symptoms and wait until they die off by themselves after a couple of weeks[back]

Enough with the attempts to evoke sympathy for huge families

September 5th, 2006

Every time there is a big event that has an economic impact, the newspapers and other media try to publish a few articles showing some of the people it hurt.

Giving the “human element” touch to the story, instead of focusing on things like hard facts. And human element stories are much more efficient when they’re about the poor, suffering, and hard working people than when they’re about people who are well off.

This happens every time there is some law that changes taxation, savings, and so on. And, of course, after things like the latest war/skirmish in Lebanon.

But what always annoys me is the families they choose to portray. Obviously they take families with children, because nothing evokes sympathy quite like children who will now go hungry because the recent changes made it impossible for their parents to feed them[1].

And if that was as far as it went, that would have been fine. At least, fine for what they want these articles to achieve.

But these families are always, always, with 8-12 children. OK, I lie, not always. Sometimes there are 15 children. And always we hear about how now even while the two parents are working (though sometimes only one is working, or they lost their jobs, or whatever) they can’t afford to feed all of them, or get them proper clothing and other essentials.

What the publishers of these articles probably expect is to get reactions like “Oh, the poor dears. Look, so many children now have to live this bad. How horrible”. But what I usually feel is, well, that if the stupid careless parents have stopped making children after the 2nd, the 4th, or after how many they could actually expect to be able to take care of, then they wouldn’t have the problem.

Anyone who raises 8+ children will have a very hard time, financially (and otherwise, but that’s beyond the scope of this post), taking care of them. Children do take a lot of money to raise, clothe, educate, and feed. A couple with two high incomes will have a problem raising so many kids in high life quality. And these people, with those huge families, usually earn average and below salaries.

And the parents know that. They know that ahead of time, in advance, when they decide to have another[2] kid. So when I hear about a family with 10 children who live in bad conditions, I know who to blame. Not the new economic reforms. Not the war. Not any politician, or any world event. There’s just one source for all the trouble they’re having. The stupid and careless parents.

Anyone who doesn’t have a very good reason to expect to both have a very high income, and to be able to keep that income coming, shouldn’t raise that many kids. I don’t say not to raise any kids if you’re earning minimum wage. People understandably want kids, and I fully sympathise with that. But 8, 10, 12, 15 kids?! No, no, no, and no.

If these parents would have gotten sued for malicious negligence of children, instead of getting welfare support per child, things would have looked different. There would have been a lot less hungry kids for us to feel sorry for.

But they get welfare support for the kids. The more kids, the more money. Helping a needful family raise the first, or even second, kid I can understand. I can support that on a moral/emotional ground, even if it’s questionable economically. But giving people more money to raise even more children? That’s just asking for trouble.

It is no wonder that people who need to get extra money to raise all their children, can’t raise their children without receiving a lot of extra money.

If you can’t afford ten kids, don’t have ten kids. If you can’t afford ten kids, and yet chosen to have ten kids, don’t come to me for sympathy. Someone rich, who got into unexpected troubles, and so can’t raise the children, that can get sympathy. They fully expected to be able to raise and support them when they made the decision. But anyone who isn’t filthy rich should be ashamed of themselves.

This post was, of course, in a response to reading yet another such article. This time about a poor family from the north who, purely because of the damage caused by the bombardments, now cannot afford to feed their children, or to buy them all the things they need for school. They do have 10 children, naturally.

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  1. Nobody really goes hungry for lack of food in Israel. Anyone in this country who, even earning minimum wages, claim not to be able to eat is likely either lying, or have some inappropriate standards. So it won’t be Basmati rice with fillet steaks, but plain rice with turkey gizzards. Still perfectly edible, and even quite tasty if done right.[back]
  2. and another, and another, and another…[back]

Joan Dornemann – July 13 – International Opera Program in Israel 2006

September 5th, 2006

This was the first of Joan Dornemann’s master-classes this year (Well, except for the opening night, but since I didn’t have tickets to it then it doesn’t count), and she was certainly up to par and as interesting and educational as usual..

Before I start I just want to point out again that these are not official or professional reviews, and actually aren’t really even reviews of the singers, so if someone interested in one of the singers (or who is one of the signers) got here, please don’t take anything personally, good or bad, OK?

The first singer of the evening was Amit Friedman, a Baritone from Israel. He sang Come dal ciel precipita from Macbeth by Verdi.

Apparently he came back after studying most of last year in Berlin. And there was an obvious improvement in his singing, though he still has much of the same posture and presentation problems.

He had a strong, clear, and deep voice, and projected it very well. But even though Joan said he looked less tense than last year, he stood rigid throughout the whole time, and kept looking at the floor too much.

He admitted that a part of the problem is that he has problems finding “placement”, and that he thinks about what the audience is thinking. This is a known problem with many singers, since being on stage makes people self-concious, and they concentrate on the audience instead of in their performance.

At one point Joan asked him how he thinks people sound like when talking to someone who is in danger, as the character he sings does in this aria. He started straight off being technical, thinking about it and answering with details such as that they’ll use darker tones, changes in tempo, and other details.

Joan stopped him in the middle of this explanation, telling him that “You’re too complicated”, and joking that he has been in Germany for too long. What she was aiming for, given his strong singing, was that the singing should be “Soft, you talk softer”.

Then, when he started singing and put a bit too much into it, she stopped him again with a comment that “This was a note, not a feeling”.

The aria is intended for a Bass, and Amit is a Baritone. Not a big problem, especially when singing an aria and not a part in the entire opera. But he tried to pull his voice lower, to bass level, a few times. He’s not a bass, though, so it didn’t came out right, and he had a problem keeping it, resulting in what Joan referred to as “vocal baloney”. She told him that there’s really no need to try and impress anyone with it, and added in jest that he’s just pulling an “I’ve got a low note. Do you want to hear it honey?” attitude.

She also mentioned that singing strong and loud isn’t enough, it’s also important in what voice and in what way. “It’s the quality of the voice, not just the amount”.

The second singer was Maya Lahyani, a Mezzo-Soprano from Israel. She sang Les tringles des sistres tintaient From Carmen by Bizet.

Just like last year, she had a good voice, and she acted well. She’s 24, and apparently also spent the year studying abroad, in New York (In the Manhattan School of Music? She mentioned a short nickname for the school, I think, and I’m not all that familiar with them all).

While she sang well, it was too “simple” for this aria, or for the role of Carmen. This is basically what Joan worked with her on during this part of the class.

A part of it was simply because this is a French opera, and everything in French is more complex and rich. Joan mentioned again the simile of cooking to using the languages. An Italian with an egg will make an omlette, or a hard boiled egg, and will add few spices, if any. A Frenchman with an egg will make something sophisticated, like a soufflé, and will use many spices.

And the language is the same. More subtle than Italian, the notes will not be as direct or as strong and loud. “All three arias in Carmen are written to be soft”.

In Carmen’s case it is compounded by the character, and should also go for the acting. The acting of Carmen should not be blunt and obvious. This aria is about seduction, but it’s not blatant, but a delicate and elegant seduction. And “It has to be sincere, it’s the only way lips work”.

The third singer was Lauren Jelencovich (Finally, a spelling. Last year I didn’t see her name printed, and wrote it as Yelinkovitz), a Soprano from the US (Yes, the name does sound Hebrew to me too. But she’s from the US, not Israel). She sang Chacun le sait From Daughter of the Regiment by Donizetti (It sounded like Rossini when she eventually said it, but I assume it was Donizetti).

She started singing without introducing the aria. So Joan stopped her and told her to do the proper presentation. So she said what she intends to sing, but did so quietly, and without looking at the audience.

Joan Stopped her again, and told her to look at the audience and to “Say it louder”. So Lauren looked at the audience, and loudly said “Louder”. Took her a moment to realize just why everyone was laughing, but she joined right in. Then she made a proper, and loud, introduction. Though, as I mentioned above, I still heard her say Rossini for some reason.

She’s young, and not very experienced, so while her voice is nice, it’s still not exactly it, and became a tad too sharp when she tried to reach the higher notes. But her voice did develop during the passing year, and she could reach operatic range. In a few years she may become a very impressive singer.

Joan worked with her mostly on the acting, since in this role she has to act more masculine, as someone who grew up around soldiers, and imitates them. This didn’t came very naturally to Lauren, who looked like a pretty cute girl, and her occasional looks of sheer frustration were amusing. She did enhance them for dramatic effect, though, so I’m not exactly cold and callous by being amused.

The fourth singer was Hagger Leibovich, a Soprano from Israel (Though she lives in New York). She sang Quando m’en vo’ from La Bohème by Puccini.

Her singing was a little bit too airy and held back for my taste. She didn’t project her voice well, and while it was possible to hear her it felt like like her voice was concentrated/directed downwards.

Joan repeated something she does a few times every year, explaining to a singer how to go about getting reviews on what are the things they need to work on. Not to ask people what they think overall, or what was wrong. Rather to ask specific questions, and positive ones. “What part of my voice/range/etc did you like best?” sort of questions.

And to ask several different people the same question. If everyone picks the same few things, then maybe it means something else is missing, whatever it is nobody said they particularly liked. But in any case to ask people what they liked more, not what they liked less, and deduce from that.

The interesting bit of this part of the class was that Joan went over the content of the aria, in which Musetta tells Marcello how everyone always notices her beauty when she goes out to the street, and told us all the hidden double-entendres. And there are plenty of them in there. The aria sounds half innocent, but apparently if you know the Italian used, and possible other interpretations of the same words (And Puccini did when he wrote it), it becomes quite racy.

The fifth singer was supposed to be Steven Long, a Bass from the US. But he didn’t show up, something about throat problems (an excellent excuse for a singer) and him being 22. I’d see him about a week later, though.

As an interesting observation, most days this year had five singers, and on those where six singers were listed, most had one cancel due to some sickness or another problem.

The intended sixth singer, who was the fifth singer, was Anita Watson, a Soprano from Austalia. She sang Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani.

According to Joan the selection of which singer/s to send from Australia is done based on a competition. The winners, supposedly the best singers of the group, get to come to these programs and the master classes.

And Anita was pretty good. She had a smooth, deep, and strong voice. Her high notes were beautiful. And I liked her crescendo near the end of the aria. But she need to work on her soft voice more.

Here Joan mostly talked about the composer, Catalani, and the written notes of the aria. The notes often carry with them signs which the composers used as a semi-private shorthand, using them so signify things beyond the regular meaning of the notes and signs, or for habits of the composer. And that these are usually best known by people who learned from people who learned from people … who learned from people who learned from the composer himself.

In Joan’s case, she also learned from someone who had Catalani up that chain. So she could explain to Anita some of these signs, and how to sing the aria closer to what the composer really intended.

Another issue Joan mentioned is that even during what are supposed to be rally quiet parts, the singing should still be strong enough for the audience to hear. “Can you sing loud, and look whispering?”

And so ended the first, short, half-week of the opera master-classes this year. One week and a bit more to go.